How to Make a Portfolio for College
Traditionally, portfolios as part of the college admissions process were solely the domain of certain types of academic programs, namely, architecture, the performing arts, fine arts, film, and other visual or auditory mediums. Yet, those aren’t the only students who have the opportunity to assemble a portfolio for college these days.
In an effort to create a more holistic admissions process, many colleges and universities are opening the door to the submission of ancillary materials such as papers, projects, artwork, or videos showcasing extracurricular talents. As of 2022-23, the Coalition Application, in use at 165 top schools, encourages applicants to include these types of materials in a virtual “locker.” Many other schools are encouraging students to submit multimedia supplements through applications like ZeeMee, a platform that allows users to share their unique stories and talents with admissions officers through short videos.
In this blog, we will answer the following questions:
- How many work samples do I need to get into an architecture program?
- What goes into a performing arts portfolio for undergraduate admission?
- What do I need in a portfolio for fine arts programs?
- How do I prepare a portfolio to study set design, lighting, or costume design?
- What goes into a film school portfolio?
- What are some unique degrees that require portfolio submission?
- What is ZeeMee?
- Optional writing samples
Schools of architecture vary greatly in terms of their requirements. They run the gamut from an extensive showcase of architectural sketches to not requesting a single work sample.
Syracuse University requires 12-24 examples of your best work. Cornell asks for 15-20. The New School advises that students with no architectural background “should demonstrate elemental understanding of three-dimensional form and space, composition, and basic understanding of light/shadow, depth and color through sketches, drawings, photography, crafts, sculptures, etc.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, Northeastern University does not require a portfolio submission of any kind, as they acknowledge that most high schools lack quality programming in this area. Instead, they seek only the most academically qualified applicants.
Typically, those seeking entrance to a performing arts program will be required to submit a portfolio complete with a multitude of video clips meeting specified criteria. Those who make the grade will then be invited to a live audition.
Requirements in the performing arts are ordinarily quite particular and involve using the online application system, Slideroom. Amherst, for example, requires highly specified supplements for their Music program. This includes “a recording of yourself in solo performance (if classical instrumental, voice, or jazz) or group performance (if jazz, rock, pop or other) of 2-4 tracks, not longer than 10 minutes total, exhibiting contrasting examples of expression and technique for classical submissions or varied stylistic approaches (swing, Latin, ballad, blues, etc.) for jazz submissions.” Amherst’s requirements for Dance and Theater are a bit less rigid; they essentially just want to see a video of you in action.
Connecticut College’s Music program is far more open-ended in their requirements. They suggest that artistically inclined applicants send along an optional arts supplement comprised of two contrasting pieces of music that best demonstrate your musical ability.
Stanford sets different requirements for those applying to different programs within the fine or performing arts. Photography applicants must submit ten photographs. Those pursuing Painting, Drawing or Printmaking concentrations must submit ten images of their work as well. Students in Video, Digital Media, or Electronic Art can submit no more than three videos –maximum ten minutes. NYU requires Studio Art applicants to submit 15-20 work samples. Additionally, NYU requires a one-page statement explaining your goals as an artist, your influences, and your background and training.
Those seeking admission to a prestigious set or production design program will need to compile very specific (and not to mention spectacularly executed) items for their portfolios. At NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, applicants “must include at least one three dimensional scale model with figures for one scene of a script (or photos of models), a scale ground plan for same model, and five examples of architectural sketches (furniture, architectural details, interior details, etc).”
Requirements for Costume Design or Lighting Design are equally detailed.
Entry into Yale’s program will require either an in-person portfolio or the physical mailing of an intimidating list of cataloged items in order to be considered. Boston University’s program offers a two-step online review. First, applicants submit up to 20 digital images through Slideroom. Next, engage in a Virtual Portfolio Review with the committee.
To apply to SUNY Purchase’s film program, one must submit ten samples of artwork (including videos) along with a statement about your role in each production. At George Mason, the process includes a video sample submission but also a sample treatment for a film or television show as well as a 500-word essay explaining your interest in film as an area of study. USC’s renowned film program requires a mix of writing samples, a personal statement, and photo/video clips of your previous work.
Some schools with highly specified concentration areas also require portfolio submissions. For example, Rochester Institute of Technology applicants to the Medical Illustration, Metals and Jewelry, and Furniture Design programs must all provide additional materials, with very specific guidelines. Applicants to the Medical Illustration program must “Include at least six drawings of natural forms such as seashells, plants, human figures, or animals, rendered in a single medium.”
What is ZeeMee?
ZeeMee offers students the chance to make videos that are a maximum of 4 minutes (formerly 26 seconds). Students can sign up for a free ZeeMee account. This allows you to create videos, and then submit their link as part of their application submission. Students are encouraged to use this opportunity to simply introduce themselves or to answer one of the suggested prompts.
Optional Writing Samples
Many highly-selective colleges allow students to submit writing samples as optional components of their application. Harvard and Yale will take a look at any scholarly articles, research papers, or creative writing samples. The University of Chicago encourages the submission of a “short” creative writing sample or scientific research abstract. We encourage you to take schools up on their offer of including a writing sample. However, you should be judicious in your selection, submitting only one or two examples of your absolute best work.
- Firstly, most college programs in the arts require the submission of some type of portfolio containing work samples.
- Additionally, the requirements vary greatly by school/program.
- Pay careful attention to the detailed instructions regarding portfolio submission. Provide EXACTLY what is asked; you don’t want to give an unnecessary edge to your competition.
- If you lack experience in your area of interest, that’s okay. Explore programs that place greater emphasis on your grades than your portfolio.
- All college applicants, not just those entering art/design fields, can benefit from including portfolio items. For example: writing samples, short videos highlighting their talents and skills, or simply by establishing a more human connection with an admissions committee.
For a list of the Best Colleges for Architecture, Art, Dance, Film, Theater, and more, visit the College Transitions Dataverse.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).